Casino committee looks to find acceptable language, more votes
CONCORD — A group of gambling super committee lawmakers has crafted proposed changes to Senate Bill 152 to allow casino gambling in the hopes of winning enough votes in the House to pass the bill when votes are counted next Wednesday.
House members will have to overturn the Joint Finance and Ways and Means Committee recommendation to kill the bill, before the 45-page amendment can come before the House for a vote.
The committee — by a razor-thin 23-22 margin — voted to kill the bill on Wednesday after spending nearly a month vetting it.
The proposed changes address the problems raised by the three sub-committees that worked on the bill, said Rep. Kathy Rogers, D-Concord, one of the amendments authors.
The new proposed amendment strengthens the regulatory framework, gives the attorney general greater clout in the selection process, limits campaign contributions and forbids candidates from seeking them from casino owners and officials, and requires the state to reject any applicant who owners fail background checks.
The amendment also attempts to protect entertainment venues around the state and provides additional protections for existing charity gaming operations.
The group continued to work on the amendment on Thursday.
Rogers said the amendment now makes changes to the makeup of the casino study commission, which will determine if additional casinos should be approved, and to the North Country Commission. Under the bill, North Country economic development receives 10 percent of the state money from the casino.
“The amendment goes to great lengths to address the problems every one brought up in the committees,” Rogers said. “We tried to come up with solutions to problems.”
None of the changes the group proposes are expected to be deal breakers with the Senate, which approved the bill on a 16-8 vote.
But Rogers acknowledged that it’s a hard climb to defeat the committee’s recommendation before the amendment is introduced.
If the motion to kill the amendment is defeated, other amendments are likely to be introduced as well, including alternative expanded gambling proposals.
Opponents of the bill said Thursday they don’t expect the committee’s recommendation to be overturned.
Long-time gambling opponent, Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, said he doesn’t believe the debate will go beyond the committee’s recommendation to kill the bill.
He said most of the veteran House members have not changed their positions on gambling from years past.
“I do not see any significant movement from their previous positions,” Hess said. “The wild card is the freshmen Democrats.”
The House has never passed casino gambling, although the Senate has a number of times.
Casino supporters believe this is the best shot they have had with the backing of Gov. Maggie Hassan, who supports the bill and included $80 million from casino licensing fess in her proposed operating budget.
Hassan is meeting with House members to address their concerns about the bill and continues to do so.
The other significant factor casino supporters point to is that Massachusetts is about to open three destination casinos and a slot machine parlor.
If the state does nothing, they argue, it will lose millions of dollars it now collects and will have to bear the additional cost of problem gamblers from New Hampshire going to the Bay State to gamble.
Lew Feldstein of Casino Free New Hampshire said while the issue is not resolved, the committee vote is significant.
Forty-five representatives spent more than three weeks studying the bill and at the end decided they could not overcome the limits and structural problems of the proposed legislation, he said.
The close committee vote probably means a close vote in the House, Feldstein noted, adding is it not a simple choice for lawmakers.
“What has not gotten nearly enough attention is what kind of financial deal is it for New Hampshire,” he said.
The House votes Wednesday on SB 152, which would allow up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games. The developer would be required to spend $400 million on the facility.